Ah, a time for farewells...
"Looks like the Odin is really getting ready to move out," Jackie said, sounding disappointed. She stared at the image of the huge E.U. ship in the Ares common room monitor.
"Yes," Maddie said. "Why, I wonder?"
Jackie glanced sharply at her. "What’s bothering you? After all the shadowboxing you’ve been doing trying to keep our guests from finding out anything, I’d think you’d be glad they were going."
Maddie couldn’t help frowning. "It just doesn’t make sense to me. The cost of sending Odin out here is… Well, it’s actually rather hard to determine, but many millions of dollars, maybe orders of magnitude more than that. They could have had Odin doing a lot of other things that would have been potentially profitable, or at least a lot less of an apparent loss."
Bruce sat up a little straighter. "So what’s your take, then?"
The former HIA agent shook her head. Being unable to answer Bruce’s question in a clear direct fashion was frustrating and upsetting. "I don’t know, Bruce. Instinct tells me there’s something wrong here. And I didn’t survive some of the things I have by having bad instincts. My evaluation has always been that they came here to see if they could find out something that would give the E.U. a leg up. It only makes sense, given that the IRI and Ares have so far kept in the forefront, with the United States getting the main benefits after that. But …
"I know that Fitzgerald’s managed to get a handle on what we’ve been doing in the fusion research—enough that I expected they’d try to suborn our systems or some of our people and send the data onward. With the resources of the E.U., they’d be easily able to develop the Bemmie system to practical deployment far faster than we can, and according to you"—she nodded at Jackie—"and Dr. Vasquez, it’s not so far from our own theoretical knowledge that the E.U. couldn’t make a good case for having just come up with it independently after the discovery of the Bemmie superconductor, which shook up a lot of theoretical constructs anyway."
"But you made sure they couldn’t do that, right?"
Maddie rose and drifted restlessly around the break room. Joe, as usual, was absent because he, Reynolds, and A.J. were still working on the dusty-plasma vessel and, in Joe’s opinion, were close to making it work. "I actually made sure that they thought they could do it. And I’m about ninety-nine percent sure that Fitzgerald bought that line, but he ended up not taking the bait. Oh, I’d have shut them down and kicked them out when they tried." She shook her head and gave a faint chuckle. "Maybe I’m just a little full of myself. Richard Fitzgerald might just be smart enough that he saw the trap. I don’t think he is, but maybe."
Jackie didn’t look very happy. "You think all of them are here to, well, do industrial espionage? Really?"
Madeline laughed. "No, no, not all of them. Well, yes, in that I’m sure they were all told to keep their eyes open, but there’s a big difference between that and actually stealing secured data. Your boyfriend is probably just fine."
Jackie blushed slightly—something barely visible with her dark skin. "Horst Eberhart is not my boyfriend. We went on exactly two dates—if you can even call them ‘dates’ in the first place. I barely know the man. " After two or three seconds, she added a bit plaintively: "Only probably?"
"Only probably," Maddie said. "But that’s from my paranoid worldview, remember. I get paid to assume everyone’s up to something."
"So," Bruce said, "If I’m understanding you right, the problem is that you don’t think these bastards got anything, so you’re wondering why they’re leaving?"
"Something like that."
"They couldn’t have just decided you had things locked down too well and, after a while, it’s not worth it?"
"Maybe." Maddie restrained the impulse to stomp her foot, which would have caused her to bounce off the ceiling. "But that just feels wrong. They’re heading back to Earth. Why? Just to drop off people? No special cargo?" She hated feeling this uncertain. It was something so rare for her that it was unsettling. "Or are they even smarter than I thought? Did they get past all our security, including me, and so what they’re doing is leaving with their prize?"
"Maddie, luv, you’re the best there is. The only way they’re getting away with something is if you didn’t know there was something to find."
She froze. Her mind flew back, fitting together the dozens of pieces of the puzzle she’d encountered in the past year and a half.
Maddie turned and propelled herself towards the exit, bringing up her own VRD displays. "Bruce, I think you may be exactly right."
Control. Losing control will do me no good. The general took a deep breath. "Exactly what do you mean by ‘insurance,’ Mr. Fitzgerald?"
The security chief smiled. "The kind you didn’t need to know about, General. It’s my job, not yours. Plausible deniability and all that."
"I doubt very much if ‘plausible deniability’ is all that plausible here in the asteroid belt," said Hohenheim, his teeth almost clenched.
Fitzgerald shrugged. "Probably not plausible to the Ares people, sure. But that’s hardly what matters, is it? What matters is simply what people think back on Earth. And for those purposes, we should be fine. I chose the right sort of men for this little jaunt."
Hohenheim suspected that his notion of "the right sort of men" and Fitzgerald’s were kilometers apart. But...
He took a deep breath. What was done, was done. And he was the one who had set this all into motion in the first place, he reminded himself sharply.
"We are not… attacking them, I trust? Because that is directly contrary to our directives."
"Not attacking, no," Fitzgerald answered. "Just… making sure they can’t do anything to stop us until it’s too late. Which was what you wanted, right?"
Hohenheim reviewed their prior conversations. Unfortunately, he had said things which could, in their essence, be read that way by someone seeking to push the envelope. And Fitzgerald was nothing if not an envelope-pusher. He’d have to remember that in the future.
"What exactly is going to happen, then?"
"It’s standard CCC technique, General—Chaos, Confusion, Catastrophe. Very light on the catastrophe, of course. Modofori, Salczyck and Zaent are going for the fusion data, just the way I was going to have us do it before, except they think they’re doing it as a sort of private side-gig for me. Personal profit, you know, with everyone getting a little cut."
"And you’ve actually framed them?"
"That’s really such a cold word, General. If they don’t get caught, they’ll be rich men. And the paper trail—electronic trail, rather—doesn’t even lead to me, let alone the E.U.." He smiled cynically. "Of course, my guess is that little Goldilocks has so many tripwires and traps on that data that the first poor bastard who puts a hand on it is going to lose the hand. Figuratively speaking, at least. But that’ll be enough to keep them distracted while we’re leaving."
"Leaving our three crewmen behind?"
Fitzgerald nodded. "If that’s the way it works out, yes. Their cover is that they’re bringing the last of our own stuff back up in the Hunin. We’re just doing maneuvers to get out of orbit, ready to do a main burn, far away from Nobel, right? So when they finally do make their break, we just let the IRI grab ‘em. Sure, they’ll guess that we were trying something cute, but they’ll have no proof, and the neat part is that what we were really after they won’t have a clue about."
"But when we start moving… You do understand that Nobel could catch us early on?"
"Right. It’s smaller, they don’t have nearly the load we do, they could catch us easy over the short haul, even if we can outdo anything else in the system on the long. So I’ve got something else set to make sure Nobel can’t chase us."
"Better you don’t know. I think it’s all covered, but the less you know, the less you can be accused of. Stop worrying, General. No one’s supposed to get killed on this jaunt, and I’m not forgetting that. But giving them enough problems to keep them at home, that’s not out of the mission parameters, now is it?"
"I… suppose not," the general said slowly.
"Then I’d better get going. We’re leaving in just a few hours, right?" Fitzgerald snapped a quick salute and disappeared out the door.
The commander of the Odin stared at the door, a rising sourness in his stomach. Fitzgerald was too eager, too capable in certain areas and too blind in others. Hohenheim shook his head, unable to fight the growing conviction that things were moving out of his control.
Too late now. Whatever Fitzgerald had planned, at least some of it was beyond any ability to recall. Time to play the hand he was holding. He headed for the bridge.
Hmm. THAT doesn't sound encouraging.